Unfortunately, I was in a position to disprove this pretty conceit. But I think of it every time I put my foot in a Badger hole. Such lovely holes, so plentiful, so worse than useless where the Badger has thoughtlessly located them. If only we could harness and direct such excavatory energies.
This, indeed, is the only quarrel civilized man can pick with the honest Badger. He will dig holes that endanger horses' legs and riders' necks. He may destroy Gophers, Ground-squirrels, Prairie-dogs, insects, and a hundred different enemies of the farm; he may help the crops in a thousand different ways, but he will dig post-holes where they are not wanted, and this indiscretion has made many enemies for the kindest and sturdiest of all the squatters on the plains.
From the Saskatchewan to Mexico he ranges, and from Illinois to California, wherever there are dry, open plains supplied with Ground-squirrels and water.
Many times, in crossing the rolling plains of Montana, the uplands of Arizona and New Mexico, or the prairies of Manitoba, I have met with Mittenusk, as the redmen call him. Like a big white stone perched on some low mound he seems. But the wind makes cracks in it at places, and then it moves--giving plain announcement to the world with eyes to see that this is a Badger sunning himself. He seldom allows a near approach, even in the Yellowstone, where he is safe, and is pretty sure to drop down out of sight in his den long before one gets within camera range. The Badger is such a subterranean, nocturnal creature at most times, that for long his home life escaped our observation, but at last a few paragraphs, if not a chapter of it, have been secured, and we find that this shy creature, in ill odour among cattlemen as noted, is a rare and lovely character when permitted to unbend in a congenial group. Sturdy, strong and dogged, and brave to the last ditch, the more we know of the Badger the more we respect him.
Let us pass lightly over the facts that in make-up he is between a Bear and a Weasel, and that he weighs about twenty pounds, and has a soft coat of silvery grey and some label marks of black on his head.
He feeds chiefly on Ground-squirrels, which he digs out, but does not scorn birds' eggs, or even fruit and grain at times. Except for an occasional sun-bath, he spends the day in his den and travels about mostly by night. He minds his own business, if left alone, but woe be to the creature of the plains that tries to molest him, for he has the heart of a bulldog, the claws of a Grizzly, and the jaws of a small crocodile.
I shall never forget my first meeting with old Silver-grizzle. It was on the plains of the Souries, in 1882. I saw this broad, low, whitish creature on the prairie, not far from the trail, and impelled by the hunter instinct so strong in all boys, I ran toward him. He dived into a den, but the one he chose proved to be barely three feet deep, and I succeeded in seizing the Badger's short thick tail. Gripping it firmly with both hands, I pulled and pulled, but he was stronger than I. He braced himself against the sides of the den and defied me. With anything like fair play, he would have escaped, but I had accomplices, and the details of what followed are not pleasant reminiscences. But I was very young at the time, and that was my first Badger. I wanted his skin, and I had not learned to respect his exemplary life and dauntless spirit.
In the summer of 1897 I was staying at Yancey's in the Park. Daily I saw signs of Badgers about, and once morning while prowling, camera in hand, I saw old Grey-coat wandering on the prairie, looking for fresh Ground-squirrel holes. Keeping low, I ran toward him. He soon sensed me, and the my surprise came rushing toward me, uttering sharp snarls. This one was behaving differently from any Badger I had seen before, but evidently he was going to give me a chance for a picture. After that was taken, doubtless I could save myself by running. We were within thirty yards of each other and both coming strong, when "crash" I went into a Badger hold I had not seen, just as he went "thump" down tail first into a hole he had not seen. for a moment we both looked very foolish, but he recovered first, and rushing a few yards nearer, plunged into a deep and wide den toward which he evidently had been heading from the first.
The strongest peculiar trait of the Badger is perhaps his sociability--sociability being, of course, a very different thing from gregariousness. Usually there are two Badgers in each den. Nothing peculiar about that, but there are several cases on record of a Badger, presumably a bachelor or a widower, sharing his life with some totally different animal. in some instances that other animal has been a Coyote; and the friendship really had its foundation in enmity and intended robbery.
This is the probable history of a typical case: the Badger, being a mighty miner and very able to dig out the Ground-squirrels of the prairie, was followed about by a Coyote, whose speed and agility kept him safe from the Badger's jaws, while he hovered close by, knowing quite well that when the Badger was digging out the Ground-squirrels at their front door, these rodents were very apt to bolt by the back door, and thus give the Coyote an excellent chance for cheap dinner.
So the Coyote acquired that habit of following the hard working Badger. At first, no doubt, the latter resented the parasite that dogged his steps, but becoming used to it "first endured, then pitied, then embraced," or, to put it more mildly, he got accustomed to the Coyote's presence, and being of a kindly disposition, forgot his enmity and thenceforth they contentedly lived their lives together. I do not know that they inhabited the same den. Yet that would not be impossible, since similar things are reported of the British Badger and the Fox.
More that one observer has seen a Badger and a Coyote traveling together, sometimes one leading, sometimes the other. Evidently it was a partnership founded on good-will, however it may have begun.
But the most interesting case, and one which I might hesitate to reproduce but for the witnesses, reached me at Winnipeg.
In 1871 there was a family named Service living at Bird's Hill, on the prairie north of Winnipeg. They had one child, a seven-year-old boy named Harry. He was a strange child, very small for his age, and shy without being cowardly. He had an odd habit of following dogs, chickens, pigs and birds, imitating their voices and actions, with an exactness that onlookers sometimes declared to be uncanny. One day he had gone quietly after a Prairie Chicken that kept moving away from him without taking flight, clucking when she clucked, and nodding his head or shaking his "wings" when she did. So he wandered on and on, till the house was hidden from view behind the trees that fringed the river, and the child was completely lost.
There was nothing remarkable in his being away for several hours, but a heavy thunderstorm coming up that afternoon called attention to the fact that the boy was missing, and when the first casual glance did not discover him it became serious and a careful search was begun.
Father and mother, with the near neighbours, scoured the prairie until dark, and began the next day at dawn, riding in all directions, calling, and looking for signs. After a day or two the neighbours gave it up, believing that the child was drowned and carried away by the river. But the parents continued their search even long after all hope seemed dead. And there was no hour of the day when that stricken mother did not end up a prayer for heavenly help; nor any night when she did not kneel with her husband and implore the One who loved and blessed the babes of Jerusalem to guard her little one and bring him back in safety.
There was one neighbour of the family who joined in the search that had nevertheless incurred the bitter dislike of little Harry Service. The feeling was partly a mere instinct, but pointedly because of the man's vicious cruelty to the animals, wild or tame, that came within his power. Only a week before he had set steel traps at a den where he chanced to find a pair of Badgers in residence. The first night he captured the father Badger. The cruel jaws of the jag-toothed trap had seized him by both paws, so he was held helpless. The trap was champed and wet with blood and froth when Grogan came in the morning. Of what use are courage and strength when one cannot reach the foe? the Badger craved only a fair fight, but Grogan stood out of reach and used a club till the light was gone from the brave eyes and the fighting snarl was still.
The trap was reset in the sand and Grogan went. He carried the dead Badger to the Service house to show his prize and get help to skin it, after which he set off for the town and bartered the skin for what evil indulgence it might command, and thought no more of the trap for three day. Meanwhile the mother Badger, coming home at dawn, was caught by one foot. Strain as she might, that deadly grip still held her; all that night and all the next day she struggled. She had little ones to care for. Their hungry cries from down the burrow were driving her almost mad; but the trap was of strong steel, beyond her strength, and at last the crying of the little ones in the den grew still. On the second day of her torture the mother, in desperation, chewed off one of her toes and dragged her bleeding foot from the trap.
Down the burrow she went first, but it was too late; her babies were dead. She buried them where they lay and hastened from that evil spot.
Water was her first need, next food, and then at evening she made for an old den she had used the fall before.
And little Harry, meanwhile, where was he? That sunny afternoon in June he had wandered away from the house, and losing sight of the familiar building behind the long fringe of trees by the river, he had lost his bearings. Then came the thunder shower which made him seek shelter. There was nothing about him but level prairie, and the only shelter he could find was a Badger hole, none too wide even for his small form. Into this he had backed and stayed with some comfort during the thunderstorm, which continued till night. then in the evening the child heard a sniffing sound, and a great grey animal loomed up against the sky, sniffed at the tracks, and at the open door of the den. Next it put its head in, and Harry saw by the black marks on its face that it was a Badger. He had seen one just three days before. A neighbour had brought it to his father's house to skin it. There it stood sniffing, and Harry, gazing with less fear than most children, noticed that the visitor had five claws on one foot and four on the other, with recent wounds, proof of some sad experience in a trap. Doubtless this was the Badger's den, for she--it proved a mother--came in, but Harry had no mind to surrender. The Badger snarled and came on, but Harry shrieked, "Get Out!" and struck with his tiny fists, and then, to use his own words, "I scratched the Badger's face and she scratched mine." Surely this Badger was in a generous mood, for she did him no serious harm, and though the rightful owner of the den, she went away and doubtless slept elsewhere.
Night came down. Harry was very thirsty. Close by the door was a pool of rainwater. He crawled out, slaked his thirst, and backed into the warm den as far as he could. then remembering his prayers, he begged God to "send mamma," and cried himself to sleep. During the night he was awakened by the Badger coming again, but it went away when the child scolded it. Next morning Harry went to the pool again and drank. Now he was so hungry; a few old rose hip hung on the bushes near the den. He gathered and ate these, but was even hungrier. Then he saw something moving out on the plain. It might be the Badger, so he backed into the den, but he watched the moving thing. It was a horseman galloping. As it came near, Harry saw it was Grogan, the neighbour for whom he had such a dislike, so he got down out sight. Twice that morning men came riding by, but having once yielded to his shy impulse, he hid again each time. The Badger came back at noon. In her mouth she held the body of a Prairie Chicken, pretty well plucked and partly devoured. She came into the den sniffing as before. Harry shouted, "Get Out! Go away." The Badger dropped the meat and raised her head. Harry reached and grasped the food and devoured it with the appetite of one starving. there must have been another doorway, for later the Badger was behind the child in the den, and still later when he had fallen asleep she came and slept beside him. He awoke to find the warm furry body filling the space between him and the wall, and knew now why it was he had slept so comfortably.
That evening the Badger brought the egg of a Prairie Chicken and set it down unbroken before the child. He devoured it eagerly, and again drank from the drying mud puddle to quench his thirst. During the night it rained again, and he would have been cold, but the Badger came and cuddled around him. Once or twice it licked his face. The child could not know, but the parents discovered later that this was a mother Badger which had lost her brood and her heart was yearning for something to love.
Now there were two habits that grew on the boy. One was to shun the men that daily passed by in their search, the other was to look to the Badger for food and protection, and to live the Badger's life. She brought him food often not at all to his taste--dead Mice or Ground-squirrels--but several times she brought in the comb of a bee's nest or eggs of game birds, and once a piece of bread almost certainly dropped on the trail from some traveler's lunch bag. His chief trouble was water. The prairie pool was down to mere ooze and with this he moistened his lips and tongue. Possibly the mother Badger wondered why he did not accept her motherly offerings. But rain came often enough to keep him from serious suffering.
Their daily life was together now, and with the imitative power strong in all children and dominant in him, he copied the Badger's growls, snarls, and purrs. Sometimes they played tag on the prairie, but both were ready to rush below at the slightest sign of a stranger.
Two weeks went by. Galloping men no longer passed each day. Harry and the Badger had fitted their lives into each other's, and strange as it may seem, the memory of his home was already blurred and weakened in the boy. Once or twice during the second week men had passed by, but the habit of eluding them was now in full possession of him.
One morning he wandered a little farther in search of water and was alarmed by a horseman appearing. He made for home on all fours--he ran much on all fours now--and backed into the den. In the prairie grass he was concealed, but the den was on a bare mound, and the horseman caught a glimpse of a whitish thing disappearing down the hole. Badgers were familiar to him, but the peculiar yellow of this and the absence of black marks gave it a strange appearance. he rode up quietly within twenty yards and waited.
After a few minutes the grey-yellow ball slowly reappeared and resolved itself into the head of a tow-topped child. The young man leaped to the ground and rushed forward, but the child retreated far back into the den, beyond the reach of the man, and refused to come out. Nevertheless, there was no doubt that this was the missing Harry Service. "Harry! Harry! Don't you know me? I'm your Cousin Jack," the young man said in soothing, coaxing tones. "Harry, won't you come out and let me take you back to mamma? Come Harry! Look! here are some cookies!" but all in vain. the child hissed and snarled at him like a wild thing, and retreated as far as he could till checked by a turn in the burrow.
Now Jack got out his knife and began to dig until the burrow was large enough for him to crawl in a little way. At once he succeeded in getting hold of the little one's arm and drew him out struggling and crying. But now there rushed also from the hole a Badger, snarling and angry; it charged at the man, uttering its fighting snort. He fought it off with his whip, then swung to the saddle with his precious burden and rode away as for his very life, while the Badger pursued for time, but it was easily left behind, and its snorts were lost and forgotten.
The father was coming from another direction as he saw this strange sight: a horse galloping madly over the prairie, on its back a young man shouting loudly, and in his arms a small dirty child, alternately snarling at his captor, trying to scratch his face or struggling to be free.
The father was used to changing intensity of feeling at these times, but he turned pale and held his breath till the words reached him: "I have got him, thank God! He's all right," and he rushed forward shouting, "My boy! my boy!"
But he got a rude rebuff. the child glared like a hunted cat, hissed at him, and menaced with hands held claw fashion. Fear and hate were all he seemed to express. the door of the house was flung open and the distracted mother, now suddenly overjoyed, rushed to join the group. "My darling! my darling!" she sobbed but little Harry was not as when he left them. He hung back, he hid his face in the coat of his captor, he scratched and snarled like a beast, he displayed his claws and threatened fight, till strong arms gathered him up and placed him on his mother's knees in the old, familiar room with the pictures, and the clock ticking as of old, and the smell of frying bacon, his sister's voice, and his father's form, and above all, his mother's arms about him, her magic touch on his brow, and her voice, "My darling! my darling! Oh! Harry, don't you know your mother? My boy! my boy! And the struggling little wild thing in her arms grew quiet, his animal anger died away, his raucous hissing gave place to a short panting, and that to a low sobbing that ended in a flood of tears and passionate, "Mamma, mamma, mamma!" as the veil of a different life was rolled away, and he clung to his mother's bosom.
But even as she cooed to him, and stroked his brow and won him back again, there was a strange sound, a snarling hiss at the open door. All turned to see a great Badger standing there with its front feet on the threshold. Father and cousin exclaimed, "Look at that Badger!" and reached for the ready gun, but the boy screamed again. He wriggled from his mother's arms and rushing to the door, cried, "My Badgie! my Badgie!" He flung his arms about the savage thing's neck, and it answered with a low purring sound as it licked its lost companion's face. The men were for killing the Badger, but it was the mother's keener insight that saved it, as one might save a noble dog that had rescued a child from the water.
It was some days before the child would let the father come near. "I hate that man; he passed me every day and would not look at me," was the only explanation. Doubtless the first part was true, for the Badger den was but two miles from the house and the father rode past many times in his radiating search, but the tow-topped head had escaped his eye.
It was long and only by slow degrees that the mother got the story that is written here, and parts of it were far from clear. It might all have been dismissed as a dream or delirium but for the fact that the boy had been absent two weeks; he was well and strong now, excepting that his lips were blackened and cracked with the muddy water, the Badger had followed him home, and was now his constant friend.
It was strange to see how the child oscillated between the two lives, sometimes talking to his people exactly as he used to talk, and sometimes running on all fours, growling, hissing, and tussling with the Badger. Many a game of "King of the Castle" they had together on the low pile of sand left after the digging of a new well. Each would climb to the top and defy the other to pull him down, till a hold was secured and they rolled together to the level, clutching and tugging, Harry giggling, the Badger uttering a peculiar high-pitched sound that might have been called snarling had it not been an expression of good nature. Surely it was a Badger laugh. There was little that Harry could ask without receiving, in those days, but his mother was shocked when he persisted that the Badger must sleep in his bed; yet she so arranged it. The mother would go in the late hours and look on them with a little pang of jealousy as she saw her baby curled up, sleeping soundly with that strange beast.
It was Harry's turn to feed his friend now, and side by side they sat to eat. The Badger had become an established member of the family. but after a month had gone by and incident took place that I would gladly leave untold.
Grogan, the unpleasant neighbour, who had first frightened Harry into the den, came riding up to the Service homestead. Harry was in the house for a moment. The Badger was on the sand pile. Instantly, on catching sight of it, Grogan unslung his gun and exclaimed, "A Badger!" To him a Badger was merely something to be killed. "Bang" and the kindly animal rolled over, stung and bleeding, but recovered and dragged herself toward the house. "Bang!" and the murderer fired again, just as the inmates rushed to the door--too late. Harry ran toward the Badger shouting, "Badgie! my Badgie!" He flung his baby arms around the bleeding neck. It fawned on him feebly, purring a low, hissing purr, then mixing the purrs with moans, grew silent, and slowly sank down, and died in his arms. "My Badgie! my Badgie!" the boy wailed, and all the ferocity of his animal nature was directed against Grogan.
"You better get out of this before I kill you!" thundered the father, and the hulking half-breed sullenly mounted his horse and rode away.
A great part of his life had been cut away and it seemed as though a death-blow had been dealt the boy. The shock was more than he could stand. He moaned and wept all day, he screamed himself into convulsions, he was worn out at sundown and slept little that night. Next morning he was in a raging fever and ever he called for "My Badgie!" He seemed at death's door the next day, but a week later he began to mend and in three weeks was as strong as ever and childishly gay, with occasional spells of sad remembering that gradually ceased.
He grew up to early manhood in a land of hunters, but he took no pleasure in the killing that was such sport to his neighbour's sons, and to his dying day he could not look on the skin of a Badger without feelings of love, tenderness, and regret.
This is the story of the Badger as it was told me, and those who wish to inquire further can do so at Winnipeg, if they seek out our Archbishop Matheson, Dr. R.M. Simpson, or Mrs. George A. Frazer of Kildonan. These witnesses may differ as to the details, but all have assured me that in its main outlines this tale is true, and I gladly tell it, for I want you to realize the kindly disposition that is in that sturdy, harmless, noble wild animal that sits on the low prairie mounds, for then I know that you will join with me in loving him, and in seeking to save his race from extermination.